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Jul. 20, 2019 | Saturday
Editorials and Opinions
Review: Shaw lunchtime series a delight
Gabriella Sundar Singh as Sonya with the cast of The Russian Play. (David Cooper/Supplied)

REVIEW BY MIKE KEENAN, SPECIAL.

At Shaw plays, there are often props – some more subtle than others, employed with a symbolic nature – that often pass by, barely unnoticed. At the conclusion of the haunting production of “The Glass Menagerie,” Tom (André Sills) holds three candles in his hand. He softly blows each out, slowly eliminating sister Laura, (Julia Course), mother Amanda (Allegra Fulton) and himself, plunging us into darkness.

In Hannah Moscovitch’s “The Russian Play,” adroitly directed by Diana Donnelly and magically designed by Gillian Gallow, there is little fear of that. Nothing is subtle.

A young flower girl, Sonya (Gabriella Sundar Singh), lies dead on an institutionally sparse metallic bed, surrounded by clumps of flowers that she used to sell. The lighting is cleverly designed by Michelle Ramsay – one might associate with interrogation. A violinist-spirit (Marie Mahabal) whose sounds embody Sonya’s emotions. Two men starting the action off like a hockey game, Ryan deSouza’s music spot on with their loud singing of what must be the Russian national anthem – much like in the 1990 film, “The Hunt For Red October.” Esie Mensah’s movement direction wonderfully ballet-like, her depiction of Sonya’s two lovers simultaneously fondling her – both remarkable and repulsive.

As for the storyline, as Shaw’s program promotion suggests, “A small-town flower girl falls for a gravedigger in Stalinist Russia. What can go wrong? Well, it’s a Russian play, so: everything.”

Tim Carroll presents us with another short 45-minute lunchtime production that is spiced with ennui and love in Russia, which for the ladies, Singh compares to excrement.

It’s yet another gutsy production from an artistic director who asks that we stretch and go for it, much like his skilled cast. Singh’s superb Sonya, the star of the show, commands a standing ovation. Peter Fernandes, her true love, Piotr, the filthy grave digger, talented Mike Nadajewski, the capitalistic thug Kostya, who wears fancy furs, owns a factory, seduces young girls at will and is politically connected and Marie Mahabal, the violinist, an ethereal entity who floats amid the set like one of famed artist Marc Chagall’s painted angels.

Singh acts as a comic yet cynical narrator, grabbing a program from a patron in the front row and warning him there’s no intermission for escape. Moscovitch challenges us and her heroine to bounce from Russian sarcasm to moments of love and lust and extreme misery. Singh is so accomplished that she carries it off like a professional gymnast.

“The Russian Play” entertains but is emotionally moving. Piotr, caked in mud from grave digging, and the pretty flower girl, such a contrast yet deeply in love. Their burial scene so well done that it paralyzes the audience and takes one’s breath away. The wealthy Kostya, always fancily dressed yet morally repugnant, even loathsome.

This is Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s Shaw debut, and we welcome much more, her irreverent juxtapositions exciting and alarming.

You might mistakenly assume that you are in for Anton Chekhov, but the play begins with a quote from feminist punk band “Pussy Riot” based in Moscow. They demonstrated against Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom the group considers to be a dictator. One member served 21 months in jail. Sonya doesn’t fare as well.

The Russian Play directed by Diana Donnelly plays at the Royal George Theatre to Oct. 12.

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